As much as a woman may want to be perceived independently of her gender, she cannot escape it. This is one of the truisms that makes any debate about feminism as provocative as watching a ping-pong match between opponents who have declared the winner before picking up their bats.
In Germany, however, a country that prides itself on being among the most forward-thinking and liberal in Europe, there is no way out of gender trouble — at least not in the workplace. I am irritated with silently, perhaps involuntarily, being framed as a woman. I see it as discrimination, or at least as a way of being viewed that most men don’t encounter, which can be negative as well as positive, whether it entails a comment on one’s hairstyle or one’s intellectual ability.
Writing about it makes it even worse; it feels as if you are voluntarily putting another fence around the frame others have put around you. And yet German officials have just released some statistics that are so outrageous that everybody — male or female — ought to wake up. Only 2 per cent of newspaper editors are women, and elsewhere in the economy things aren’t looking much better: less than 2 per cent of leadership positions in the country’s top 100 companies were held by women last year.
Instead of launching into a shrill protest, I take this inequality as a matter to be judged by common sense — as would most educated women of my generation, who have been raised to believe that they could do as well as the boys.
No one, one would think, should understand this better than a level-headed female head of state who has fought her way up through a world dominated by powerful, conservative men. Yet Angela Merkel has just signed off on a law that in effect promotes an outdated view of women and their role in society.
The childcare allowance, the Betreuungsgeld, gives mothers who decide to stay at home to look after their children €150 a month. The law, which will come into effect next year, has proved controversial to say the least. Merkel has had to face criticism not only from her own centre-right coalition but also from leading feminists, who have until now been supportive of the country’s first female chancellor even if they don’t agree with her politics. Merkel has, after all, brought in an array of reforms aimed at making it easier for women to combine work and family, most notably expanding the right to parental leave and funds to assist new parents to take time off after the birth of a child.
However, this policy of paying mothers to stay at home fits a peculiarly old-fashioned attitude towards women which has, paradoxically, been espoused by powerful women in Merkel’s cabinet. Take for example Kristina Schröder, Minister of Family Affairs and Women, who opposed the plan to introduce gender quotas for company boards, promoting instead a system of self-regulation. Schröder has laid out her philosophy in a new book called Danke, emanzipiert sind wir selber (“We’re emancipated on our own/already, thanks very much”), claiming that German women have never been as free as they are today, and that the “ideological trenches of the Seventies” conceal all kinds of dogmatic feminists who refuse to change their worldview.
Given how much criticism Schröder and Merkel have received, is it fair to discuss their political decisions primarily in terms of their ideological content? Most certainly it is.
In Germany — and I presume in other countries too — what I would call laissez-faire sexism is still rife: a journalist friend of mine recently asked her editor for a well-earned pay rise, to which he replied that her husband was surely earning enough money to support both of them. Another was told by her boss that to earn more money she should have a child so as to qualify for a better tax break. These were both well-respected, educated men, not the type of mean bastards we usually associate with the word “sexist”.
The issues that are being debated by this supposedly gender-sensitive cabinet at the heart of Europe are not about feminism, women’s rights or inequality. This is just lofty talk. The discussion should be about what it means to live as a woman — with or without children — in one of the continent’s most forward-looking countries, desperate to show off its newfound enlightenment. In the end, it all comes down to simple numbers: the gap between men’s and women’s salaries is wider in Germany than in any other country in Europe. Surely forking out €150 a month for mothers who stay at home is a pathetic response to that fact.
If one understands Europe as an ideological as much as a political and economic union, it’s high time to realise that making the case for feminism doesn’t mean wearing purple corduroy dungarees and incessantly complaining. It means equality.